Modern technology offers no shortage of ways to stay in touch with colleagues while we’re away. The internet carries our thoughts across vast distances via text, audio and video, not only keeping us in the loop at work but also making sure our friends and family haven’t forgotten about us. But which computer and mobile applications are best for which job, and which offer the best value for money?
BEAT THE BUDGET
The humble medium of e-mail has been an office workhorse for 20 years or so, but cloud computing tools are taking the strain in a much more efficient way. The traditional e-mailing back and forth of documents seems almost archaic once you’ve worked collaboratively using Google’s free web-based office suite, Google Docs (docs.google.com).
It’s not the most fully featured service of its kind but it does the job – and with Google Cloud Connect, a plug-in for Windows Microsoft Office 2003, 2007 and 2010, you can automatically store and synchronize your documents.
As e-mail has started to lose those heavy attachments and become more about exchanging short messages, it is increasingly being superseded by instant messaging (IM) – take Facebook, which merged its message function and IM service last year. With text messages also being replaced by IM services such as Blackberry’s BBM and Apple’s iMessage, we’re undoubtedly in the midst of an IM explosion – but with so many competing services across various platforms, how can you roll them all into one convenient app?
Trillian (trillian.im) is indispensable in the way it allows you to use a whole range of IM services, including Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, Facebook, Skype and Google Talk, across a number of devices – PC or Mac, Android, iOS and Blackberry – free of charge. Meebo (meebo.com) does a similar job in your web browser and has a free app for iPhone, Android and Blackberry. Fring (fring.com) is also free and combines IM features with videocalling for up to four people on your mobile, be it Nokia, Android or iPhone.
MEET THE BUDGET
Traditionally, we’ve been reluctant to use gadgets to communicate face-to-face over long distances. The videophone has been heralded as a vision of the future since the early 1960s, but it was not until fairly recently, with the widespread use of both Skype (skype.com) and Apple’s Face Time feature, built into its newest laptops and phones, that we’ve started to get used to the way it mimics real-life encounters.
These two applications offer a free solution if you’ve got the camera and the microphone (as does Google Video Chat; google.com/chat/video), but when multiple callers get in on the act, video-calling moves into the realm of videoconferencing.
Skype offers a group video-calling feature, which can host up to ten people at any one time (although it suggests limiting it to five to be sure of decent quality). One participant needs to have a group calling subscription with Skype or Skype Premium, which both start at $7.99 per month, and anyone dialing in on a mobile device won’t be able to join the party – audio participation only, sadly. Oovoo (oovoo.com) is a competitor to Skype that also offers a free video-calling service on iOS, Android, Mac and PC. If you’re willing to pay $29.95 a month for the premium service, you can have 12-way video conversations, along with 500 free voice minutes to mobile phones across a range of countries. Remember that all video-calling and video-conferencing services depend on the speed of your internet connection, so if you’re struggling to get online in a remote region, it might be best to stick to text messages.
In terms of collaborative online work, Box (box.com) offers more features than Google Docs as long as you’re willing to cough up $15 a month for the business membership. Features include secure online file syncing and sharing, project management tools and more scope for discussion around the documents you’re working on. It can also be integrated with applications such as Net Suite, Microsoft Share Point and Google Apps.
BLOW THE BUDGET
If you’ve got money to play with and your infrastructure supports it, you can communicate via fully-featured web-conferencing, with presentations, rich collaboration, group video chat and online workshop facilities. Industry heavy-hitters such as Adobe Connect (adobe.com), Vidyo (vidyo.com) and Cisco’s Webex (webex.com) provide a range of features within their software packages, including streaming video, whiteboards, real-time polling of participants and sharing of computer desktops. In terms of pricing, free trials are available, but beyond that it generally depends on your requirements.
The cutting-edge of communication in the 21st century can be found in telepresence, a form of video-conferencing that presents participants life size on large displays outfitted with directional sound and high-definition cameras for near-perfect eye contact. The financial outlay required to realize these suites might currently seem like too much for too little reward, but as technology costs come down, the potential savings on traveling the globe to achieve face-to-face meetings are huge. Cisco, Polycom, Avaya and Sony all offer telepresence solutions with costs, again, dependent on your needs.
Cisco prices its entry-level systems from $10,000 to $15,000, while a larger suite could be as much as $60,000, and a top-end “immersive room” around $200,000. Holographic technology is being used in the music industry to give the illusion of an artist being present in a room when they are many thousands of miles away. An invention by technology company Musion (musion.co.uk) known as Eyeliner, it’s a spin on an old parlor trick from Victorian times called Pepper’s Ghost that uses an advanced reflective system and HD projections to create a three-dimensional image, and can be used in live holographic broadcast.
Again, this is currently too costly (prices for projecting holograms of life-size keynote speakers start from $9,000, while true holographic telepresence systems currently start from $190,000) for anyone other than very highly paid pop stars who are trying to avoid jumping on an airplane, but it’s only a matter of time until our own slightly ghostly images will be popping up in boardrooms on the other side of the world.
These days, the world of communication is becoming more about jettisoning accessories rather than acquiring them. Video and audio communication is so intrinsic to the internet experience that technology companies are cramming their phones, tablets and laptops with all the hardware necessary for us to start Skyping, Facetiming and Netmeeting right out of the box – and few would mourn the chunky headset with attached microphone that made its wearers look like the keyboard player from an 1980s band.
The front-facing cameras on modern smartphones and tablets – the ones we use for video calling – are usually inferior to the ones at the back; the iPhone 4S (apple.com, from $649 SIM-free) is a good example, with just a VGA-capable camera facing you and an eight-megapixel monster facing away. However, the front-facing camera on Samsung’s more recent Galaxy Nexus (google.com/nexus, starts at $799.99 SIM-free) is of higher quality and supports HD video – perhaps a sign of things to come.
Cameras and microphones are almost standard in modern laptops these days, but if you’re working with an old machine and need an external webcam to start video-calling, they’re incredibly cheap – not least because they’re a few months from obsolescence. Logitech and Microsoft both produce decent models for around $50 – the HD Webcam C310 (logitech.com) and the Lifecam HD-3000 (microsoft.com/hardware), respectively. As an added bonus, both have a built-in microphone. For headsets, Logitech and Microsoft are again good bets. The former’s H330 USB (logitech.com) is $29.99, while the latter’s Lifechat LX-3000 (microsoft.com/hardware) is a bit chunkier for $39.99.
If you’re looking to double up with a headset that’s good for music, the range by Creative is worth checking out – the bluetooth, wireless WP-350 (us.creative.com, $99.99) comes with a neatly hidden microphone that lets you pause the music and make or take calls reasonably effortlessly.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The furious pace of technological change will inevitably see shifts in the way we communicate over long distances. The most significant of these, according to Christopher Barnatt, author of 25 Things You Need To Know About The Future, will be the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in filtering the relentless flow of communication.
“Within five to ten years, we’ll have very smart, cloud-based AIs that will be more than capable of reading our messages, understanding their meaning and deciding which ones we have to be interrupted for,” he says. “In business this technology could become really important. We already have to learn to surf the hundreds of messages we get every day, and personal AIs will become key virtual colleagues that will help us to do this more effectively.”
Extraordinarily powerful quantum computers are just entering the market – the first commercial one, the D-Wave One, was sold to Lockheed Martin last year for $10 million – and they will eventually herald the birth of instant translation between spoken languages. Much has been written about the iPhone app Word Lens, which translates written text when you focus the camera on it, but a speech equivalent, envisaged in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, is on its way.
“Different languages are the last great communication barrier between people of different nations,” Barnatt says. “Cloud-based tools such as Google Translate are getting pretty good because they can learn from all of us, but soon they will be amazing – just speak English into your smartphone and it will come out in Chinese at the other end.”
Barnatt’s final prediction extends telepresence into an arena some may find creepy – telerobotics. “We may see humanoid robots ‘inhabited’ at a distance as a form of human communication,” he says. “So rather than appearing on a screen, somebody halfway across the world could be sitting at the same table by being present in a robotic body, driven by cameras or sensors that monitor their body where they really are.” Sip a cup of tea in Delhi while your robot doppelganger does the same in Detroit? Now, that’s sci-fi.
— By Rhodri Marsden
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